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Texas Republicans Fuss, Fight and Brace for the Future in Dallas

The Texas Republican Convention is over. But the faultlines it exposed aren't going away.
by Published on
photo by Abby Rapoport
Texas Republicans whoop it up in Big D

If there was ever a time for that dour bunch known as Texas Republican delegates to cut loose and celebrate their 16 years of using Democrats as human punching bags, it should have been their convention in that vast cavern of blandness they call the Dallas Convention Center. Here was the party that hasn’t lost a statewide election since 1994, rolling into another likely sweep in 2010—and all they could do, it seemed, was fuss and fight and pick at one another. Not to mention the occasional full-blown stamping, hollering fit.

Among the estimated 12,500 Republicans who two-thirds filled the megachurch-sized Convention Center auditorium on Friday and Saturday, it was right vs. righter—with everybody sure that they were the rightest.

Day One was smooth on the surface, a scripted spectacle featuring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Gov. Rick Perry making nice and Perry roving the convention stage in his latest of many acceptance speeches, energetically pedalling political cliches like an ’80s-vintage televangelist.

“Electing my opponent will accelerate the Washington takeover of our state,” Perry said as the crowd did its whitebread version of rocking out. “We’re engaged in a struggle for the very heart of the state.”

But there was also a struggle for the heart of the party, taking place away from the cameras in the committee meetings and caucuses, in the bars and on the escalators. The trouble that bubbled up uncomfortably throughout the convention was many Republicans’ awareness that their way of winning in Texas—the message, the organization, the leadership, all of it—still looks likely to work in 2010, but maybe not in 2014 or 2018.

After years of keeping the Christian Right and Chamber of Commerce Republicans knit together, there are new factions to stitch into one party (at least for November). Tea Partiers, for one. There were a number of them occupying delegates’ seats for the first time. But there was also frustration among some that Debra Medina, the Tea Party candidate who ran a fairly strong third in the gubernatorial primary against Perry and Hutchison, was not given a speaking role. Medina ended up unveiling her “We Texans” grassroots group (still a somewhat nebulous concept) at the nearby Magnolia Hotel.

Meanwhile, this year’s catcalls from the delegates—traditionally reserved for Sen. Hutchison, who spoke to a women’s group with Perry and then ducked out this time—went to House Speaker Joe Straus, considered by many to be another suspiciously moderate old-style Bush Republicans.

The greater tension came from the fact that a sizable portion of the delegates and party leaders understand full well that, according to pure demographic mathematics, their party can’t dominate Texas much longer without finding a way to attract the kinds of people you didn’t see in the Dallas Convention Center. Aside from the young volunteers supporting party chair candidate (and eventual winner) Steve Munisteri, the seats were occupied by and large by middle-aged and senior Anglos.

The battle between right and righter basically boils down to this: The hardcore ideologues (some of them Libertarian, some Christian Right) believe that principle matters more than politics—even though they’ve made plenty of compromises since their political rises to gain power. (Reagan was not Goldwater; W. did not abolish abortion and gay marriage.) Whatever the demographics, these hardcore folks believe that their version of conservative principles will sway enough people—whatever their color—to pick up the banner as Texas staggers forward.

Then there’s the mere right faction. The smarties on this side understand that the party has to reach out to non-Anglos to remain competitive long-term. Which means doing little things like working a line into the party platform that, amidst a bunch of red-meat anti-immigrant rhetoric, allows that those people can join the U.S. military if they’ve met certain requirements.

That wasn’t such a little thing, as it turned out. It brought out some heat—complicated heat, coming from both sides—in the floor debate over the platform, late on Day Two when nobody in the hall could stand to sit still for five minutes more after an afternoon of endless delays, featuring video filler like David Barton’s version of the War of 1812, as committee debates (such as the party officers’ nominating committee) raged on.

If the Republicans had passed the plank, they’d have allowed illegal immigrants one little thing. But they couldn’t do that one little thing. Not even a thing that would benefit the U.S. military. As one delegate bellowed on Saturday evening as the platform debate over whether to call for term limits for state executive-committee members (hardly a blood-curdling matter) turned loud and occasionally hostile: “Are we a party of principle or a party of power?”

In a lighter moment, a fellow from District 31 came to one of the microphones and proclaimed himself “a proud supporter of Big Oil and capital punishment!”

But that was the predictable part. The unpredictable part was that the Republican platform committee—chaired by conservative state Rep. Wayne Christian—had offered a platform that rejected term limits (on a very small scale), and called for letting illegal immigrants into the U.S. military under certain conditions.

The debate was animated this time. It was often angry. Imagine what it’ll look like in four years. Cartoon violence comes to mind.

A little taste of that came in the spirited campaign for party chair. Incumbent Cathie Adams was running on the “righter” ticket. And how could she not? Adams is a longtime leader of the Eagle Forum, Phyllis Shlafly’s anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-liberal group. After losing a lengthy battle in the nominations committee, Adams said very little in her final plea to the delegates about her performance in the job. She offered herself up as not a competent party chair but instead as a sort of ideological mullah: “The U.S. ought to get out of the U.N., and the U.N. ought to get out of the U.S.!” she proclaimed. Adams also went after gay marriage, claimed the Kyoto Protocol would cost 400,000 Texans their jobs, hotly defended Israel (where she’s been, we learned, more than 25 times), and proclaimed, “This is a Judeo-Christian nation.”

What any of that had to do with being party chair was an open question. Complicating matters, opponent Steve Munisteri had out-organized Adams on the floor, at least; his signs were everywhere, mostly held aloft by Young Conservatives of Texas, a group Munisteri founded. Adams ended up losing, by a solid margin, to this perky Houstonite who presented himself—in stark contrast—as a leader for the future. A “conservative” one, of course, who says he’s deeply pro-life. But heck, Munisteri was practically the only Republican who attracted anyone under 40 to the hall.

So in this battle, the mere right prevailed. Along with the platform fights, the race for chair seemed to portend a rash of ideological and strategic and cultural battles that just might end up defining the Texas GOP in the ’10s.

A cautionary note is in order here: The Texas Republicans wouldn’t have put together such a durable majority if they hadn’t shown considerable skill for knitting together factions who hold each other in suspicion, if not disdain. The Chambers of Commerce and the evangelical right is not a natural marriage, but they’ve stayed together for 30-odd years in the GOP.

And one more cautionary note: Texas Democrats have not yet figured out how to convert their good fortune, and good demographics, into votes statewide. They haven’t worked hard enough to woo Hispanic voters while the Republicans are busy repulsing them. And the Republicans won’t repulse them forever. Principles don’t win elections, as any member of the Texas GOP ought to know quite well by now. And parties are for winning. It is all about power. The Republicans will figure it out, I’d be willing to bet. The purists will have to yell and stamp and live with another kind of inclusiveness in the GOP, eventually. And there just might be somebody—maybe Railroad Commissioner and U.S. Senate hopeful Michael L. Williams, the party’s lone African-American hope—who can keep the factions voting together while they fight.

But there will be choppy seas ‘twixt now and then. I still say the Republicans should have had themselves one last throw-down in Dallas before it gets real serious.